PAUL Hartley is passionate about the way the game should be played.
Sitting surrounded by other parents as his nine-year-old son Raegan is put through his paces at the Hearts academy, he says the reason he has made the commitment to taxi him through east three times a week is because he feels his son is being taught the right things.
Whether as a dad or as a manager, the former Scotland international has football principles. “I try not to school him as such, but I do encourage him and we do chat football a lot and I will watch him at training and in games and he’s already been told that when he gets the ball, his first thought has to be to get forward. That’s the goals he’s aiming for, not behind him, so why pass backwards.”
It’s something he has drummed into his players in the two years since he assumed control at Alloa Athletic and it has helped them earn back-to-back promotions and sees them serving out this season in the Championship, exceeding the part-time club’s expectations and pitting them against full-time opponents.
But regardless the stakes, regardless the arena and the level of opposition, Hartley won’t reconsider his approach. He doesn’t feel he has to. “We work on being positive. When one of our players gets the ball he must look forward straight away. I hate when you hear people say a certain team is great at keeping the ball, but it’s all side passes and backwards passes and they haven’t got anywhere. Our first thought is always to play through the midfeld and get the ball up to the forwards.
“We work a lot on shape and the way we set up the team, the players all know their own jobs, they don’t lump it. They are all happy to take responsibility. They are happy on the ball and they trust their team-mates and they are positive.”
He says that, as a player, any other approach frustrated him so he saw no reason to impose that on his own squad.
One of a growing band of promising young managers who have possibly benefitted from clubs’ need to find cheaper options at the helm, he has grabbed the opportunity. He isn’t the only one and he says that has helped breathe new life into the game.
“Younger managers have fresh ideas and I don’t think younger managers are scared to set out their teams in a certain way and be positive. As a manager I set out my team to entertain. The way I see it the players have got to enjoy it and the fans pay good money to be entertained and see goals so we set out our team to do that. If it’s not going well or we are losing, I’m not afraid to put three up front or even five up front and to go and have a go. I would rather that than sit back and get men behind the ball, I think that is frustrating for players and fans.”
A guy who admits that the pressures of management wreak havoc with him in the 24 hours before a game, with Friday nights a mush of self-doubts and nerves, and the final hour and a half before a match a frustratingly slow passage of time.
“By then, there’s nothing else I can do, the players are getting ready and I just want to get on with it.” Revealing he gets through “two packets of chewing gum and three Red Bulls” in the 90 minutes or so prior to kick-off, music is his distraction.
But while he is impressed with the professionalism, the attitude and aptitude of his squad, he has been less than impressed by some of the sounds served up in the dressing room so has opted for a more democratic approach this season in a quest to introduce them to something that won’t make his ears bleed.
“Everyone has been allowed to pick two songs. I picked Paul Weller: That’s Entertainment and Bruce Springsteen: Glory Days. I know the boys will give me pelters but they are good tunes.”
Paul Weller is his non-footballing hero and the title of the song sums up Hartley’s mindset, hopefully serving a timely reminder to his players before they head onto the pitch and outwith his control.
He loves the buzz of that 90 minutes but he really thrives on the training ground. That is where he has the biggest influence and it is an influence he exerts throughout the age groups. “I never step away from it. I don’t think you can. You have to work hard at it and I don’t think you can just expect things to happen or for other people to do things, I work really hard. I do most of the coaching and sometimes that leaves my assistant feeling a bit redundant but I like being hands-on. I do everything and run the football side of things all the way from the top to the bottom and that includes all the youth side of things. I put demands on people and if I don’t see it being done then I soon tell them.”
This week, with a League Cup trip to Pittodrie on Tuesday, the only demand he has is that the players compete. He knows from experience that the burden of expectation is on Aberdeen, though. Having seen out the last days of his playing career in the north-east (pictured left), he knows how everyone there hungers for cup success.
“I think 1995 was the last bit of silverware so the fans expect a lot and they are passionate and they will expect to turn up on Tuesday and beat us. But who knows what can happen in a cup competition, stranger things have happened.
“When I went up there the talk was about how they had been knocked out a few times by lower-league teams, but we did all right. We came through a couple of tough ones, beating Falkirk in the last minute – I scored a double that night, one was a penalty in the last minute – but we made it to two semi-finals when I was up there. It is a great club and there are great people there. I enjoyed my time there and the fans were fantastic with me, but they are demanding.”
Impressed with the summer wheeling and dealing of Derek McInnes, he rattles through the Pittodrie players they will have to watch out for and soon assembles a starting XI, underlining the task in hand.
“We just want to go out and put in a performance and give a good account of ourselves and not come away with any regrets. But I want us to play our usual game, not to be scared. For us the real pressure is when we are playing against the likes of Cowdenbeath, this is just a chance for us to express ourselves and maybe get some positive headlines and a decent pay day. We are not going to win the cup, that’s a fact, but we can win this game.” That’s the positivity that drives him.